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22.01.22 Couzin, Right and Left in Early Christian and Medieval Art

22.01.22 Couzin, Right and Left in Early Christian and Medieval Art

In this fascinating, well detailed, and richly illustrated study, Robert Couzin examines the significance of right- or left-handedness in eastern and western Christian visual art from the fourth through the fourteenth century. As Couzin correctly asserts, art historians have mostly overlooked this feature of their studied objects, so his analysis addresses a notable gap and illuminates the ways that handedness (laterality) can--among other things--allude to various characters’ virtues, convey the efficacy of particular actions (e.g., blessing, healing, and sealing agreements), distinguish the saved from the damned, represent the nature of relationships (e.g., spouses and guests), express rank or status, and portray the unfolding of historical events.

The book’s brief introduction succinctly lays out Couzin’s purpose and method and acknowledges rare, earlier studies of the topic. It also sets the subject into a larger context, surveys the issues associated with right- or left-handedness through the ages, and summarizes key studies in medical and anthropological research that evaluate handedness from evolutionary and cultural perspectives. Such studies delve into the ways that the minority trait of left-handedness historically and linguistically has been linked with bad luck, negative physical attributes, and strange or sinister personal qualities. By contrast Couzin demonstrates the bias toward right-handedness as it appears in sacred texts, Christian theological literature, religious rituals, and church architecture.

The main part of the text is broken into three parts, each further divided into distinct chapters. The first offers an overview of the ways handedness shows up in the religious and secular pictorial art of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. This section’s first chapter on the Manus Dei (the hand of God) opens by briefly discussing the inclusion of the disembodied divine hand in Jewish artistic traditions, especially among the frescoes of the Dura Europos synagogue. Although not for the first time, here the reader will encounter an invitation to access these particular images via a link to a section of Brill’s Arkyves database. This database is extraordinarily useful, so long as the reader has handy access to the internet. Because it permits a substantial expansion of accompanying printed illustrations (three hundred and five more than the text’s printed sixty-nine), the database is a treasure. However, the images are not always of equal quality and the links to them occasionally are broken.

In the rest of this chapter, Couzin provides examples of the image of the divine hand in Christian art from the fourth through the fourteenth century, but pays surprisingly little attention to the fact that this was a primary way to visually render an invisible divine being as well as to indicate speech. One of the most prominent instances of the figure appears in depictions of Jesus’s baptism by John, but occurs also in depictions of the binding of Isaac and of Moses receiving the Law. A small point, perhaps, but here the author’s contrast between “borrowed Old Testament themes” and “explicitly Christian scenes” (27) seems to suggest that Old Testament stories were not also part of the Christian Bible.

The remaining two chapters in Part I deal with handedness in depictions of fighting and writing. Here Couzin attends to the differences in handedness across sports and the wielding of various weapons. Here he identifies the relatively common occurrences of ambidexterity or left-handed combat in visual art in contrast to textual sources and notes the dominance of right-handedness for scribes. This, Couzin suggests, might be explained by the different “spiritual weight” given to writing over fighting (83). The section concludes with a short “digression” on the subject of feet, commenting on instances of characters favoring the right foot when stepping up to an altar, the position of a foot washer (and the choice of foot to be washed), and the significance of crucifixes showing Christ’s right foot nailed over his left. In the last case, Couzin cites evidence to suggest its meaning may parallel the significance of right and left in the spiritual symbolism of mercy or goodness (right) and justice (left).

The book’s second section develops the theme of the auspicious right hand to consider the significance of the right-side position for figures within a composition. Among the examples Couzin identifies are the relative placement of the two crucified thieves (traditionally Dysmas and Gestas) flanking Christ on the cross and the variable positions of Peter and Paul, especially in such scenes as the transmission of the New Law (traditio legis). Couzin argues convincingly that the right- or left-hand placement of Peter and Paul indicates a preference for one or the other of the two Holy Apostles, depending on “local, social, and personal conditions as well as general trends” (137). He also grants that, while competition between places like Rome and Ravenna may account for which apostle is depicted as the primary recipient of the new law, exact reasons are often difficult to firmly establish, given some of the objects’ poor state of preservation or the fact that many were fabricated in one place and exported to another.

The last part of this second section, dealing with the right-left placement of spouses or the Virgin Mary at her coronation, is the longest and may be the most interesting to medieval historians. Couzin considers the fact that, in early Christian art, wives are normally depicted to the right of their husbands as complicating the standard left/bad, right/good dichotomy which would lead one to expect to find the male partner on the right (as is the case in most medieval compositions). The shifting of the position of honor may either indicate the woman as patron, or the couple as courting lovers. Yet Couzin argues that the images in which the wife is placed to her husband’s right “cannot have been meant to raise the wife to the social, moral, or spiritual level of her husband,” so perhaps it signals a “different mode of expressing marital inequality” (146). This last, Couzin suggests, can explain the usual positions of Christ and Virgin Mary when they are shown seated side by side with the Virgin on the right (160-75). However, here, as Couzin points out elsewhere, one inescapable problem of judging right- vs. left-sidedness is based, partly, on whether one takes the position of the viewer or that of the characters depicted. The position of honor might be unconsciously shifted in the eye of the spectator from inside the image to outside of it.

The third section of the book attends to depictions of figures’ motion from left to right (LTR) or from right to left (RTL), considers the lateral patterns of sequential images, the directional turning of spiral friezes on columns, and perspectives from above. In each of these instances, Couzin offers thoughtful and well-researched reflection on the perspective of viewers and the process of viewing itself. The “spatial agency bias” between viewers from language groups who read from left to right and those who read from right to left is reviewed (noting the problem of illiteracy), along with the probable influence of western prototypes that could skew the results for Hebrew, Arabic, or Syriac speakers. Couzin also discusses notable exceptions (e.g., the Annunciation from the right).

In this last section the issues are more focused on scientific studies of culturally-based perception-biases around viewing than on the symbolism or meaning of the movement from right to left (or vice versa). In the opening of the chapter, however, Couzin mentions the possibility that RTL motion might be perceived as “more aesthetically pleasing, faster, or stronger” (193). The final chapter also considers certain other mechanical or purely physical issues such as left-handed artisans, inversion in production (stamps, molds), and mirror images or images seen from different sides (as in gold glasses). Interestingly, here Couzin also discusses such actual rather than statically depicted movements as circumambulation as described in liturgical ceremonies as possibly influencing the direction of spiral reliefs on columns.

The closing pages of the book strongly advocate the value of the study and criticize art historians who are inattentive to the significance of right and left. Couzin equates that inattention with failing to notice such other features as use of materials, application of color, or differences in style or technique. Couzin further laments that the matters he discusses have “gone largely unnoticed” and are “underappreciated” when they are noticed (242). His case is well made, even if it makes a somewhat contentious final statement. Thankfully, with the publication of this erudite and detailed volume, that no longer can be said.